Report

Is the Islamic State Taking Its Fight to the Skies?

The militants who control much of Syria and Iraq may be taking a page from the al Qaeda handbook and trying to blow up passenger jets.

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U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday “it is certainly possible” that a bomb was on the Russian jet that crashed last weekend on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. It was the first time the president has publicly acknowledged that the disaster could be an act of terrorism, raising troubling questions about whether the Islamic State has adopted a new strategy of carrying out mass casualty terror attacks outside the borders of its self-declared caliphate — and about why one of the Middle East’s best intelligence services failed to stop the plot.

Obama stopped short of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said in London earlier Thursday it is “more likely than not” that a terrorist bomb downed the plane.

“I don’t think we know yet,” Obama told the Seattle radio station KIRO during an interview broadcast Thursday afternoon. “Whenever you’ve got a plane crash, first of all you’ve got the tragedy, you’ve got — making sure there’s an investigation on site. I think there is a possibility that there was a bomb on board. And we are taking that very seriously.”

“We are going to spend a lot of time making sure our own investigators and our own intelligence community figures out exactly what’s going on before we make any definitive pronouncements,” the president continued. “But it is certainly possible that there was a bomb on board.”

Earlier Thursday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States could not rule out the possibility of terrorism in the crash.

Until now, U.S. officials have maintained that Islamic State militants — unlike al Qaeda extremists — are focused more on seizing and holding territory than on staging high-profile attacks on airliners or other targets abroad. But Western officials have harbored fears that the group could one day emulate al Qaeda and attempt to stage a spectacular attack, taking advantage of their strongholds in Syria and Iraq to prepare the operation.

Hours after the Metrojet charter plane disintegrated over the Sinai peninsula Saturday, killing all 224 on board, the Islamic State’s branch in Egypt claimed responsibility, saying it had taken revenge for Russia’s military intervention in Syria. “Know, oh Russians and those allied with you, that you have no place in the land of Muslims . . .,” the group said an online statement.

Western governments initially treated the claim with caution, but Britain said Wednesday that it was concerned the Airbus “may well have been brought down by an explosive device” and had as a result halted any any further flights out of the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. London is the first foreign government to suggest the plane may have been destroyed by a terrorist bomb. On Thursday, a spokesperson for British Prime Minister David Cameron said flights to the UK would resume Friday. 

A senior U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy that the plane’s scattered fuselage — parts of which reportedly were strewn over 20 square kilometers — suggests it was downed by a bomb onboard. Planes that explode due to engine troubles or fuel leaks usually break in half.

An onboard bomb was “kind of suspected … from the beginning,” said the intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official did not dispute reports attributing the explosion to a bomb, and noted it’s unlikely the British government would have suspended flights from the tiny Sharm el-Sheikh airport if a terror threat was not involved, but cautioned it is still too soon to say exactly what happened.

President Barack Obama’s administration declined to comment publicly on whether it shared Britain’s view, but U.S. officials reportedly said there were tentative signs — including intercepts of communications — that indicated an Islamic State bomb may have downed the aircraft. But officials indicated that it would have been the work of the local ISIS branch in Sinai and not the Islamic State’s core in eastern Syria. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has long been seen as posing the most serious threat to commercial airliners because of its ability to produce sophisticated bombs that can evade metal detectors. But the Islamic State’s offshoot in Egypt would have had the best chance of penetrating Sharm el-Sheikh airport because the group thrives on widespread discontent with the Cairo regime and may have had moles at the facility willing to hide conventional bombs on the plane.

Placing a bomb on an airliner departing from Sharm el-Sheikh “would be well within [the Islamic State’s] abilities,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA officer who has tracked terror threats in the Middle East.

“The key is to find someone in the airport who you can give the bomb to and then has access to the plane,” Riedel told Foreign Policy. “I seriously doubt security at Sharm precludes that from happening. Sinai is full of people who are very unhappy with the government of Egypt.”

Even though the Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai has boasted of downing the plane, its claim of responsibility is “particularly vague” compared to the extremist group’s past statements about big attacks, said Rita Katz, executive director of the Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors and analyzes online jihadi messages. She predicted the Islamic State would soon release more propaganda about the crash, following on new a statement by its fighters in northern Iraq that quoted a Russian militant there who referred to “O Putin the pig.”

“As vague as IS’ claim may be, it should not be entirely dismissed at this point,” Katz wrote in an analysis published Wednesday in the International Business Times. 

“Still, IS will need to provide more evidence to convince the world of its involvement,” Katz wrote.   

Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria, al-Nusra Front, have openly urged their followers to retaliate against Russia for President Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy warplanes and troops to Syria. Russian fighter jets have carried an intense bombing campaign over the last month against rebels opposed to strongman Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including raids that targeted Nusra as well as ISIS fighters. On Wednesday, Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said Russia had carried out eight hundred airstrikes in Syria in October, compared to 100 by the United States.

U.S. intelligence agencies and analysts have long drawn a distinction between ISIS and al Qaeda, portraying the Islamic State as intent on seizing ground with an armed force, holding it, and ruling towns and cities with an iron fist. Al Qaeda, in contrast, has had its sights set on attacking Western governments, which it accuses of propping up tainted regimes in the Middle East.

But that may be beginning to change. In another sign the Islamic State may be following in the footsteps of al Qaeda, authorities in Spain said Tuesday they had broken up an ISIS cell linked plotting to launch an attack in the capital. In pre-dawn raids, police arrested three Moroccan men who were legal residents and who “manifested their clear willingness to carry out an attack in Madrid.”  In 2004, 191 people were killed when an al Qaeda inspired group bombed a commuter train in Madrid.

If forensic evidence from the downed aircraft confirms that an affiliate of the Islamic State orchestrated an attack, it would mark a new, dangerous chapter in the evolution of the group, though questions remain about how much control the group’s leadership in Syria wields over branches in Egypt and other countries. And it would alter the strategic calculus for Washington, which is fighting the group in both Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, the United States has led an air war against the group for over a year and has deployed more than 3,000 troops to advise and train local forces. Last week, the White House announced plans to send about 50 special operations forces to Syria to help rebel fighters pile pressure on the Islamic State in their stronghold of Raqqa. To date, though, the effort has failed to turn the tide against the group in either country.

If the Metrojet plane was indeed taken out by a bomb, it would also cast serious questions about the strength of Egypt’s security services, which Washington has touted as highly capable when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks and uncovering plots.

Cooperation on counterterrorism has been a lynchpin for Washington’s relations with Cairo, and has been cited to justify a vast annual package of $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid that has continued unabated despite Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rampant repression and human rights abuses.

The United States has kept up the supply of military hardware even though there have been persistent allegations that Egypt’s security agents torture detainees. During George W. Bush’s presidency, the CIA transferred terror suspects to a secret proxy prison in Egypt where the security services abused detainees during interrogations, according to rights groups and a Senate intelligence committee report.

Egypt’s economy — and its vital tourism industry — are virtually certain to suffer because of its security services’s apparent failure to disrupt the attack. The country’s tourism industry has been contributing 11.3 percent of its GDP and brought in 14.4 percent of its foreign currency revenue in 2014. Irina Tyurina, press secretary of the Russian Tourism Industry Union, said the number of all trips booked the day of the crash fell by 50 percent, according to the Interfax news agency.

Lufthansa, Emirates, and Air France had already stopped flights to the region and said they won’t resume them until the cause of the accident is determined. On Wednesday, Ireland also grounded planes heading there. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called the British decision “somewhat premature.

Photo credit: Khaled DeSouki/Getty Images

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